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Hot on the scent of health and beauty

EMBROIDERED scent bags packed with herbs have been popular for more than 2,000 years. But these traditional adornments are more than mere decoration. Zhang Qian puts her nose to the grindstone.

An elegant noblewoman in ancient China would always be seen with a fine dress, an open fan, a confident walk, and most probably, a small embroidered sweetly scented bag hanging from her belt.

Embroidered scent bags packed with herbs like flagleaf and borneol have been popular for more than 2,000 years here, not only because of the aroma but because they are good for the health as well. Wearing a scent bag during spring and early summer can help refresh the mind, prevent respiratory ailments like colds or flu, and improve the appetite.

The legend goes that the Princess Tongchang in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) decorated her sedan with five-color scent bags, leaving a distinct aroma wherever she traveled. And the habit of wearing scent bags gradually spread to the public since then and remains popular today. The bags with their beautiful embroidery can be used as ornaments, mascots or lovers' tokens.

The bags used to be especially popular in the few months before the Dragon Boat Festival. Almost every housewife made scent bags for each family member. The elderly were given peach-shaped bags as a wish for longevity; children wore broom-shaped bags to sweep away the evil spirits; young ladies and men chose scent bags shaped in their animal horoscope signs. Though the bags are made in various shapes, they are all decorated with five-color silk thread, symbolizing wu xing (the five elements).

Apart from being purely decorative, scent bags are good for health, especially for children in the south of China. Continuous rain in spring and early summer brings a lot of infectious diseases and digestive ailments, and pests like insects and snakes come back to life. Instead of being packed with sweet-smelling flowers, traditional Chinese scent bags are filled with scented herbs like cang shu (Chinese atractylodes), bai zhi (angelica dahurica), flagleaf and xin yi (biond magnolia flower), which are good as insect repellents.

They are often recommended by TCM doctors to help refresh minds, improve appetites and prevent respiratory ailments like colds and flu. They are based on the technique of yi guan liao fa (cloth and cap therapy) in TCM, where special herbs are placed in clothing and hats to prevent and treat various ailments. And now the technique is widely used in pillows, scent bags and knee pads.

Scented herbs like huo xiang (ageratum) and bai zhi can help treat ailments internally or externally. Hanging a scent bag with powdered herbs on your chest sends a highly concentrated herbal scent directly to your nose and mouth. The herbs can work continuously.

Herbal aromas like mint, ageratum and flagleaf can help stimulate the nerves when they travel through the nose to the brain. Other herbs like cang shu and bai zhi can help dispel pathogenic dampness which usually burdens the digestive system and thus improve appetites. Modern research shows that the smell promotes stomach and intestinal movement, and secretions help the digestion process.

Wearing a Chinese scent bag is also recommended to ward off respiratory ailments like colds. Research shows that though none of the herbs in the scent bag can kill the virus, the mixed scents can stimulate nasal mucosa to secret more virus killers °?- secretory lg A (SlgA). Since little of the virus can survive nasal mucosa, there is less chance of you catching a cold. SlgA is usually in low concentrations in children's noses, making them vulnerable to respiratory infections. It is recommended that children wear a scent bag every day in spring with the changeable weather patterns and high occurrence of flu.

As well as being worn on the body, scent bags can also be used as decorations in rooms or in cars. Some herbs can keep their scent for months while others can only maintain their effectiveness for a few days. To keep them potent, you have to change the herbs when the scent bag loses its smell.

Scent bags are not suitable for everybody, according to Zhang Tingting, chief physician of Gynecology Department of Yueyang Hospital of Integrated Traditional Chinese and Western Medicine. Their use is prohibited for pregnant women because using scented herbs like ageratum over long periods can lead to abortions. And because some modern scent bags are mixed with dried flowers or essential oils, people with allergies should be careful.

DIY scent bags


1. Grind the ingredients into powder and mix them together.

2. Put 3-5 grams of the mixture into a scent bag and seal it with thread.

3. Change the powder in the bag once every 10 days to keep it effective.

Here are four recipes:

(All of the recipes can help refresh the mind, benefit the digestive system and prevent respiratory ailments.)


Ingredients: galangal (15g), Chinese cinnamon (30g), borneol (3g) and camphor (3g)

Function: To help warm middle jiao (cavity including stomach and spleen), benefit the spleen, dispel pathogenic wind and cold. This is recommended for those who are prone to diarrhea.


Ingredients: chuan xiong (hemlock parsley, 10g), bai zhi (angelica dahurica, 10g), cang shu (Chinese atractylodes, 20g) and borneol (3g)

Function: To help promote energy flow, remove stasis, and relieve pain. This is recommended for those suffering irregular menstrual periods, rheumatism or headaches.


Ingredients: shan nai (Kaempferia galange, 10g), realgar (10g), camphor (3g) and clove (50g)

Function: To help promote energy flow and warm middle jiao, dissolve phlegm and kill parasites. This is recommended for those suffering stomach aches, indigestion and distended chests or stomachs.


Ingredients: ageratum (10g), artemisia leaf (10g), Chinese cinnamon (30g) and shan nai (15g)

Function: To help sooth nerves, improve the appetite and refresh the mind. This is recommended for those prone to vomiting or diarrhea.


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